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Letter at Zero Dark Seven

- Information reaches Afzal family 51 hours too late

Srinagar, Feb. 11: Wails rose from a home that was already in mourning when a letter was delivered this morning — carrying a “Speed Post” label and 51 hours too late.

The despatch to Afzal Guru’s widow Tabassum was from Tihar’s superintendent of jail No. 3, informing her that her husband would be executed at 8am on February 9.

Mushtaq Ahmad, a neighbour, heard the wails when the postman reached the Guru home at 11am today.

“It was as if he (Afzal) was hanged again. Everybody began crying again,” said Ahmad, who lives in Afzal’s Seer Jagir village in Sopore, which continues to remain out of bounds for visitors because of restrictions.

The arrival of the letter confirmed what has always been suspected: the Centre did not want to run the risk of a flare-up triggered by a leak and had stuck to the bare minimum while going through the motions of informing Afzal’s family.

The time at which the Speed Post letter was deposited for despatch was a giveaway: 12.07am on February 8 (Friday), a day before the hanging.

The government has been saying the family was “informed” or “communicated to” on February 7 “evening” or “night”. Strictly speaking, the government is correct in the sense that the “evening” or “night” of February 7 can spill over to February 8.

But what the government did not say was that the letter was sent past midnight — an unusual hour to despatch the communication of an execution scheduled the next day and codenamed, according to Tihar officials, “Operation Three Star”.

In military parlance, 12.07am would have been “Zero Dark Seven” (the title of the film, Zero Dark Thirty, stands for 30 minutes after midnight), not Friday “evening” or “night”.

Speed Post cannot be blamed for any delay. India Post’s website says that such mail from the national capital to any part of the country other than the four metros will take four to six days.

But the mail on Afzal reached Srinagar the next day, by when the convict had been hanged in Tihar. Even then, the letter could not be delivered, apparently because of the curfew put in place to contain the feared fallout of the execution. The curfew continued on Monday.

John Samuel, chief postmaster-general of the J&K circle, said: “It arrived here on February 9 (the day of the hanging). It was curfew here but our GPO (general post office) was functioning, although our offices in Sopore and Baramulla were not functioning (because of the curfew). Next day, it was Sunday. So the delivery was made at 11am today morning despite the curfew.”

Yasin Guru, Afzal’s cousin, said the family was initially reluctant to receive the letter. “He (Afzal) had already been hanged so what purpose would it serve, we thought. We know it is a formality as the government of India wants to prove to the world that it is a democracy. The fact is they didn’t bother to inform us in advance.”

He added: “They deliberately delayed its delivery so that it reached us after his hanging. We took the delivery only after some people prevailed on us to check its contents.”

In Delhi, Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde insisted that the letter was sent on February 7, again vacillating between “evening” and “night”. Shinde also appeared to put the onus of communication on jail officials.

“The family was informed on February 7 through Speed Post. The home minister cannot do everything. I sign it and then it goes to the secretary (Union home secretary) and the secretary sends it to the jail authorities. It is up to the jail authorities,” Shinde told a media conference.

Shinde pulled out copies of documents of the despatch when he ran into a volley of questions. He said the letter was sent twice — it was re-sent 10 minutes after the first despatch. Pressed further, the minister asked if the journalist was “advocating Afzal’s case”.

Asked about the wishes of Afzal’s family to visit his grave on the Tihar jail premises, Shinde said: “It can be considered.”

Tihar jail officials said they had sent the letter in line with rules.

“The letter was sent late on the night of February 7 from the general post office near Gole Market (located near the heart of the capital),” said Tihar jail law officer Sunil Gupta.

Asked whether the family could have been informed over phone or email, Gupta said Kashmir police phoned the family on Saturday at 6am, 2 hours before the execution. Afzal’s family has been saying that they came to know of his death from television.

Before Speed Post came into being, such letters used to be sent by registered post.

Chief minister Omar Abdullah had yesterday ridiculed the mode of communication, saying that “if we are going to inform someone by post that his family member is going to be hanged, there is something seriously wrong with the system”.

Additional reporting by Nishit Dholabhai and Imran Ahmed Siddiqui in New Delhi